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Protest Song of the Week: ‘The Uranium War’

Native American singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie won a prestigious Canadian music award for her most recent album, Power in the Blood, last week.

The album from the 74-year-old singer-songwriter, whose work spans the past five decades, earned the Polaris Prize for best record of the year, beating albums by Drake and The New Pornographers.

One of the songs on the album is “The Uranium War,” a song which is a prequel to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” a song Sainte-Marie wrote for her 1992 album, Coincidence and Other Likely Stories.

The song features indigenous characters, who face the rise of corporate lust for resources underneath the remaining lands where Native Americans live.

As one verse recalls:

And me I watched it grow: corporate greed and a lust for gold and
coal and oil and, hey, now uranium
Keep the Indians under your thumb; pray like hell when your bad times come
Hey rip em up, strip em up, get ’em with a gun

Up to this verse, the song consists of Sainte-Marie’s vocal and piano. But, signaling a turning point against Native Americans, drums and guitar give the song a darker intensity.

The forces of corporate greed hunt Native Americans for uranium. Particularly, those who work for corporations want to know where the uranium is “buried” in the land so they can mine it. The war is over keeping the resource in the land.

Sainte-Marie mentions “Annie Mae,” paying tribute to Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, an American Indian Movement activist who was part of the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973.

Hundreds of Oglala Lakota activists took control of Wounded Knee, which was the site of a massacre in 1890 by a U.S. Cavalry. A 71-day siege involving the US Marshal’s Service, FBI, and National Guard unfolded against the occupation. When it was over, Aquash was found dead in a ravine on the Pine Ridge Reservation, with a number of activists suspecting the FBI had some role in her death.

Aquash is mentioned in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”:

My girlfriend Annie Mae
Talked about uranium
Her head was full of bullets
And her body dumped
The FBI cut off her hands
And told us she died of exposure

U.S military forces act on behalf of corporations to violently push aside Native Americans and plunder resources. Energy companies control churches “by the dozens” and try to “guide our hands.” FBI spies do the bidding of these companies. And the companies seek to “turn our Mother Earth/over to pollution, war, and greed.”

While “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is more of a rock anthem reflecting on the injustice of the siege, “The Uranium War” is a slow-building precursor, which signals forebodingly all-out war is to come, and it ends as the violence escalates.

This is fine songwriting, an example of why Sainte-Marie is such a revered Native American musician. And it is Shadowproof’s “Protest Song of the Week.”

Want to suggest a protest song that should be featured? Email protestmusic@Shadowproof.com

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."